Name: Daniel Bell
Occupation: Producer, DJ
Current event: Blip, Blurp, Bleep. What read like slightly uneasy eating noises on paper was actually once the sound of the future. In the early 1990s, many producers were beginning to shorten the length of their samples, reducing them down to mere snippets and creating bizarre and reconstructing music from the atom on up. The fascination was contagious: Minimal would soon become the dominant style of its time – and Daniel Bell one of its founding father-pioneers.
Although Bell produced almost his entire body of work in the short span between 1992 and -94, this small oeuvre would come to exert a seminal influence. His classic "Losing Control", which was the motivation for this interview originally conducted in 2011 for Beat Magazine in Germany, is still mentioned by many contemporary artists as an inspiration and Bell would collaborate with many of the Detroit scene's biggest names, from Richie Hawtin and John Acquaviva (in Cybersonik), to Ricardo Villalobos (as part of the Narod Niki collective) and Fred Giannelli (in Spawn).
[Read our Richie Hawtin / Plastikman interview]
Although he would release the occasional track since then (including 1997's magnificent "The Symphony (Can You Feel It)"), Bell has since mainly focused on his DJ career. Remarkably, here, too, although never fully in the spotlight, his contributions have been formidable, with his two mix-CDs The Button Down Mind Of Daniel Bell and The Button-Down Mind Strikes Back! widely considered classics. Even thirty years after he shaped the future, Daniel Bell is still firmly a part of it.
If you enjoyed this interview with Daniel Bell and would like to explore his work in more depth, visit his profile on Facebook.
You've described Detroit in the early- to mid-90s as a „positive place“. Speaking more concretely, what was were things like, both for the city as a whole and the club scene in particular around 1992-94?
I moved to Detroit in 1990, just as the main clubs of the era were winding down. I remember the Music Institute closed just a few months before. The downtown of the city - where I lived - looked incredibly desolate and felt empty. It has now been all cleaned up and Woodward has many businesses on it, but in the early 90s it was just wig stores and porn theaters.
Around 92-94, I don't remember too much happening in the club scene in Detroit. When I wasn't djing myself I was going to either Timesquare, Heaven or the Famous Door which were black, gay clubs. They were the best places to hear House music at that time. Heaven was my favorite. Ken Collier used to dj there every weekend and the sound system was so loud, the bass would physically move you. He would start the night out by playing more traditional vocal House music and around 5am he would start to drop tracks like "Circus Bells" by Robert Armani and more tracky style records.
This was a big inspiration for me, and even today I try to make something that I imagine could be played at that club at that time.
Which other players on the Detroit club-scene were you in touch with back then?
I was in touch with quite a few people at the time. The scene in Detroit was very small and so you are always bumping into people at work or at the lunch spot or at the clubs at night. If I wasn't at home working on music I was usually either hanging out with Claude Young, Shake or Richie Hawtin.
During the day I worked at Record Time in Detroit along with Mike Huckaby, Rick Wade and Brendon Gillen. We constantly talked about music 24hrs a day. There was a lot of exchange, a lot of discussions - it's something I missed when I moved to Europe.
Everyone gets their inspirations from somewhere. For Derrick May, the influence of the Chicago house scene seems to have been pivotal. What was it for you?
Yeah, definitely Chicago house was a big inspiration and still remains so. It was hearing Phuture's "Your Only Friend" at a club called the Twilight Zone in Toronto that made me want to make this type of music. This was back in 1986.
Before House I was also heavily into Hip-Hop in the mid-80's as well as Zapp, James Brown, Kraftwerk, Steve Reich and Philip Glass' earlier works like Music In 12 Parts.
What were your sentiments on club music at the time?
When I first got into House music I was going to underground loft or basement parties. They typically had only a few hundred people and the lights were usually turned off so you were in complete darkness most of the time. When you were on the dancefloor, you looked at the other dancers. The dj was typically on a second level somewhere looking down on the dancefloor.
By 1992 the rave scene arrived in the U.S. and this small party approach was on its way out. The dj was put on a stage and presented like a rock band. At first it was cool to see such a huge following for electronic music but it quickly soured. Raves, and the music played at them, felt like a fast food, dumbed down version of what came before it.
I did a 35 date tour with Moby and Prodigy across the U.S. playing at these events, and when I returned to Detroit I decided either I was going to quit doing music or return to what inspired me in the first place.
[Read our Moby interview]
Why, would you say, is your vision of producing timeless music best realized by a philosophy of “less is more”?
Ultimately, I wanted to create something that broke away from the old order. A purer more simplified version of what came before.
I was struggling with money and had only a drum machine and a keyboard at the time, so I turned necessity into virtue and tried to create tracks with only a few sounds. It meant making sure every sound served a purpose, and repeating the groove as much as possible. It also meant creating momentum with normally mundane events - like taking away the hihat decay and then adding it back again.
And that approach is what has kept me engaged in this music after years of being involved in it - these ideas of repetition and reduction. When I made "Phreakbeat" (later named Phreak) in 1992, this became the first track where I felt it was totally me - something not made for a rave or a Derrick May rip-off. But something unique that was the foundation for different approach.
Can you tell me a bit about the production of “Losing Control”, please?
"Losing Control" is a bit like my version of Steve Reich's "Come Out" record put to a House beat.
More than any other sound, we are most tuned into the sound of the human voice and when we hear a voice repeated and manipulated, it seems to create this surreal effect that makes a big impression on the listener.
Who's voice is the sample taken from?
It's my voice in "Losing Control". I put my voice in a lot of my records, not because I think it's particularly great voice but because it personalizes the track. It probably took me a few days to produce.
Do you still remember where and when you first heard the song in public?
I don't remember when I first heard it in a club but I played it for friends who would come by my apartment before it was released. When the vocal part morphs out of the bass at the beginning, people would just bug out - because nobody was expecting that to happen. There was no precedent for that particular effect.
Between 1992 and 1994, you released seven 12inches as DBX, which still sound fresh and inspiring today. How do you look back at that time?
It was a great time. I was struggling with money, just barely making rent, but I was happy. I think of those records as a kind of audio snapshot for that time in my life, and what I was experiencing around me.